Interview: Richard Dreyfuss discusses A&E’s ‘Coma’

There’s an error in the headline for this interview, which claims that Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss discusses “Coma.”
To clarify, I sat down with the “Jaws” and “Close Encounters” star back in March to talk about his role in A&E’s new miniseries adaptation of the genre-classic Robin Cook novel, which will premiere on Labor Day.
At that point, I hadn’t seen the telefilm, which focuses on a young medical student (Lauren Ambrose), who discovers that her hospital has an unnaturally large number of patients going into comas. The ensemble cast includes Steven Pasquale, as well as Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn and Geena Davis and Dreyfuss, plus James Woods, Joe Morton and a slew of additional familiar faces.
Normally I don’t talk to actors about projects I haven’t seen, but in addition to being the star of several of my all-time favorite films, Dreyfuss is also one of the smartest and most political actors in Hollywood and the conversation seemed like something I wouldn’t want to miss. 
It doesn’t necessarily come through in the Q&A, but Dreyfuss was in a terrific and cordial mood, but he happened to either be unwilling or unable to talk about his twisty new thriller.
I spent a while trying to pursue a discussion of “Coma” and perhaps its take on the state of healthcare in 21st Century America. As you’ll read, it wasn’t necessarily productive. Eventually, though, I think that we had a good chat about the challenges of finding directors capable of working with actors, as well as the challenges of acting for TV.
Click through for the full interview, which isn’t really about “Coma” at all…
HitFix: I haven’t seen “Coma” yet, so let’s start with the very basics. Tell me about who you play…
Richard Dreyfuss: I play a doctor, the creator of The Institute. And that’s all you’re going to get out of me. 
HitFix: So there are mysterious or twisty things about your character?
Richard Dreyfuss: You saw the original film?
HitFix: I did.
Richard Dreyfuss: Alright. Let’s put it this way: I’m not Michael Douglas.
HitFix: Was the original film a film that you liked back in the day?
Richard Dreyfuss: No. No. It wasn’t a very good film. It was an interesting novel, but the thing that makes this one hopefully better is that Mikael Salomon is a great, great cinematographer and even reading the script, you could tell how it would look.
HitFix: Was he the big draw for you on the project?
Richard Dreyfuss: He was a great plus, but… Yeah. I suppose he was, yeah.
HitFix: How has the story been changed or updated for 2012?
Richard Dreyfuss: I can’t tell you any of that, because it’s a suspense story.
HitFix: How about thematically? How has it been changed?
Richard Dreyfuss: Thematically? Well, it’s a post-modern abstract… [He laughs, messing with me.]  It’s very spartan in its expression…ness. Um. It’s a thriller. And hopefully, because of Mikael, it’s really gonna cook.
HitFix: But the original book and movie both come from a tradition of paranoid thrillers that were very much of-the-moment in the 1970s. Obviously we’re not in that framework anymore, so how has it been 2012-ized?
Richard Dreyfuss: I don’t compartmentalize them like that. I think a suspense thriller like “Saboteur” is going to work now and then. Suspense is suspense.
HitFix: It seems, though, like in 2012 there are different reasons to be paranoid about the medical establishment and healthcare in America.
Richard Dreyfuss: Yeah. I mean, the villains in this film could be heroes, but just by the amount of their bills, they’re villains.
HitFix: But is this specifically about or reflect on healthcare in American in 2012?
Richard Dreyfuss: If I tried to draw a political parallel for this film, I would be struck by lightning, so let’s just say… [He makes a mock innocent voice.] “No.”
HitFix: Why would you be struck by lightning? Surely it’s a draw if there’s something zeitgeisty to this version of “Coma”? 
Richard Dreyfuss: You know how small a zeitgeist is? You know how many zeitgeists there are and have been?
HitFix: Many, I’m assuming. [He laughs.] But if you catch the right one, obviously…
Richard Dreyfuss: That’s true and it’s something we’ve been trying to do for thousands of years. It’s futile. If this suspense thriller works, whether it’s medical, whether ’70s or ’90s or whatever, if the director knows what he’s doing, you’re gonna be on the edge of seat. Or vomiting. And I don’t want to be sitting anywhere near you.
HitFix: But you’re a politically inclined guy and I know you have concerns in this arena. [He smiles and nods. He knows what I want and he’s not going to give it to me.] When you get a script like this, do you think along those lines?
Richard Dreyfuss: The only thing I think is, “Is this a pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi film?” If it’s a pro-Nazi film, my answer’s 99 percent, “No.”
HitFix: But I’m still curious about this, ideologically.
Richard Dreyfuss: For me, it was the character. I have a friend who’s a screenwriter and he teaches a class to other screenwriters in how to know beforehand what scenes will be cut. And when I read this script, I knew: I’m not going to be cut.
HitFix: How long has he been able to give this advice?
Richard Dreyfuss: So far it’s kept him in coupons and a yacht in the Mediterranean.
HitFix: The cast in this thing is remarkable. Who did you most relish getting to work with?
Richard Dreyfuss: Jimmy Woods. And the one thing I will say is that I went up to Mikael and I said, “For Jimmy and I do do a film together and not have a scene is stupid.” And so they wrote a scene and then we did it totally against expectation and it was so much fun.
HitFix: You’d never worked with him before?
Richard Dreyfuss: I don’t think so? But we’ve been friends forever. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with him, though? When you get to be 64-years-old, if any brain cells fall on the floor, please give them back to me at the end of the interview.
HitFix: So talk to me a bit more about playing that scene and playing it, as you say, against type.
Richard Dreyfuss: Well, you know who Jimmy Woods is. And I know who I am. We just played against it. And it was a surprise. Even the people on the crew just went… [He drops his jaw.]
HitFix: You mentioned Mikael’s background as a cinematographer, but he’s directed a number of projects before. What does a director who has that sort of training bring to the table?
Richard Dreyfuss: He’s a cinematographer trained under Steven [Spielberg], so he’s actor-friendly and that’s actually not commonplace nowadays, so it was very comfortable. I ask only for a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere and I hardly get that and Mikael knew that and that’s his personality anyway, so there was never any emotional diva stuff, except for from me, of course. “Her trailer is how much bigger?”

HitFix: You can even get into that on A&E miniseries?
Richard Dreyfuss: Well, you can still have, “What’s the billing?”
HitFix: You said that it’s not as commonplace for directors to be actor-friendly these days. What’s more common?
Richard Dreyfuss: When you’re working on a film as an actor, you’re working alone. You’re either working with the other actor on the scene, or not even him. And the director is at Video Village and the crew is there to work. So there’s no audience of any kind and you’re out of sequence. And, for the most part, directors have lost the willingness or the ability or the whatever…
[Malcolm McDowell, there to promote “Franklin & Bash,” walks by and Dreyfuss politely pauses and goes to hug the “Clockwork Orange” star. If you’re a fan of a certain era of cinema — And if you’re not, I’m not sure we can be friends — it’s a great moment.]
Richard Dreyfuss: Where was I? 
HitFix: You were talking about what directors are concentrating on instead of actors.
Richard Dreyfuss: Yeah. They focus on the frame and they focus on lighting and stuff, but they’re so far away from being able to see the real work that the actor is doing. For the most part, directors think their work is done when they’ve cast the part. 
HitFix: Does that feel like a shift to you? Was that not the case 30 years ago?
Richard Dreyfuss: No. It was not this way. And it used to be that that’s when the director’s job started. And there are very few directors who even really know how to add or even evaluate what an actor’s doing and, of those, most of them don’t know know how to do it helpfully.
HitFix: To what do you attribute that shift or change?
Richard Dreyfuss: Budgets. Time. You know, all those great inventions that were created to save time and money, but don’t. That’s why.
HitFix: So who have you worked with who you’d point to as directors who know how to communicate with actors?
Richard Dreyfuss: [No hesitation at all.] Paul Mazursky, Herb Ross and Steven Spielberg. And John Badham.
HitFix: So the Old School directors?
Richard Dreyfuss: Yeah. I have a very good list.
HitFix: Is it different on episodic TV? Is there more of a chance for the directors to work with actors?
Richard Dreyfuss: I don’t know. I haven’t done it.
HitFix: Well that’s not true. You did “Parenthood.” You did “Weeds”…

Richard Dreyfuss: Oh right.
HitFix: So is that a medium in which actors and directors are more connected? 
Richard Dreyfuss: Uh… 50 percent. I did two shows. One of them was stupid and the other one wasn’t. And I’m not gonna go… It’s because… Television has a surprisingly great element in it, in that the characters are open-ended and you can say, on any given week, “Hey, let’s make him a schizophrenic.” But writers, or writer-producer-showrunners, for the most part… There comes a moment before you start to shoot and you’re on the telephone with some 22-year-old studio executive who really doesn’t know anything at all about filmmaking and who thinks that the film world began after World War II — this has happened to me — and when you’re on the phone with one of those idiots and he brings up a questionable area or a problem for him, you band-aid it and you know you’re just band-aiding it to get out of that meeting. Six months later, you’re attached to your band-aid. You’re loyal. It’s like you’ve gotten married. And you have to sit the writer down and go, “Wake up! Wake up! It was a band-aid! Remember!” So, it’s a drag. So, oftentimes, the writers get very defensive.
HitFix: Is that the same TV and movies? 

Richard Dreyfuss: Well, in a film, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. In a TV series, you don’t. You have a beginning and a middle and the end could go off into all kinds of things. In a feature, there are certain people who mistake the word “director” for “boss.” And that’s always unpleasant. There aren’t many of them, but there are just enough. And there are actors who do the same thing. There are always different power-points on a set. So my advice is to smile and then throw the grenade and run.
HitFix: And you also did “Max Bickford,” which was a show that had a passionate audience, but maybe just wasn’t the right show for its time…
Richard Dreyfuss: It wasn’t supported. Yeah.
HitFix: But was that show a good enough experience that you’d want to do something like that again?
Richard Dreyfuss: I learned what was wrong about it, but whatever you’re dealing with, whether you’re making shoes or films, it doesn’t matter. If you do it, you’ve gotta commit to it. And if you do, if you hold back, it’s too easy to fail. So the people who are supporting a project, meaning executives and network people and whoever, they have to really support it. For the most part… Marketing for instance… The joke about marketing was, “They have Version A and Version A.” And they wouldn’t know how to tell that particular, singular and eccentric project any differently than they would sell any other. 

HitFix: Pity that.
Richard Dreyfuss: Pity that, yes! Many great films have tanked because of that and much, much, much money has been spent trying to salvage a film because they didn’t know that if they had spent five pennies early, they could have saved themselves $200,000 later on.
HitFix: And $200 million in some cases.
Richard Dreyfuss: Yeah. And when you’ve built a distribution system that’s all built for blockbusters and there are none anymore… Whatcha gonna do?
“Coma” premieres on Monday (September 3) on A&E.